An acceptable time

A sermon for Proper 7; 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

These last three weeks have been ones of remembrances. This morning’s gospel story is Jesus and the disciples sailing across the sea to Galilee. It always reminds me of an early adventure with Angie. We went to a nearby lake with some friends. Someone brought a small 12-foot Sunfish sailboat. It was a good day to sail, with a good steady breeze, so, I asked her if she’d like to go sailing, and she said yes. We got on the Sunfish, Angie sitting amidship and me at the rudder. We enjoy a brisk ride across the mouth of the cove. Then it came time to turn around. I carefully told Angie to watch out for the boom as it would swing around pretty quickly. I pushed the rudder to the right, the Sunfish turned as expected, Angie gracefully duck as the boom swung when the wind changed directions. It was perfect, ~ until the boom clipped me on the shoulder and knocked me off the stern. After my lifejacket popped me back to the surface, and she could see I was safe, Angie broke out in righteous laughter. It really was funny.

Another remembrance of the last weeks, was our trip to the beach, with most of my entire extended family, let’s see 36 of the 44 of us were there. We have been going to the beach ever since I can remember. Until my siblings and I were in college we went every year. Now as our families include other families we go every even-numbered year. In 2010 we were ready to leave the Alabama Gulf coast when we learned Angie’s sister in law died, so we went to Williamsburg to her funeral, then to Litchfield Beach. On Thursday we learned her uncle had died, so we drove to Roanoke to his funeral, then back home. This year Angie’s aunt died. Only we had driven down with our daughter and her family, and we didn’t have proper clothes, so we drove home a day early, repacked and drove to Roanoke for her funeral. I am quite sure we will continue to go to the beach; however, I suspect we may feel leeriness in 2026.

The third remembrance is Jeff Session quoting Romans 13:1

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God (NSRV)

as a justification for the zero-tolerance enforcement of immigration law, resulting in the separation of children from their parents. There have been all sorts of articles, columns, Facebook postings, with all manner of opinion. One that caught my eye was Melissa Florer-Bixler’s reflection on her Sunday School class discussion.

[They are] Anabaptists, Mennonites who are descendants of an illegal breakaway from the Catholic Church. Early Anabaptists were hunted down, drowned, tortured, and burned for the anti-government action of baptizing one another upon confession of faith in Jesus Christ. This was a political act, one that defied the authorities of the day (Florer-Bixler).

They ponder how to respond to Session’s use of scripture. They note how Paul has experienced all sorts of hostility from government and religious officials. They explore how he may be saying God is control of everything, and all human institutions, including Caesars, King, and governments are divine puppets on a string. They consider how the verse may be a warning against religious zealotry, leading people to refuse to pay their taxes. They even venture into the idea that chapter 13 is a smuggling operation, saying … the correct words that would allow his letter to successfully make its way through the empire’s checkpoints (Florer-Bixler). Most powerful is her noting that in their circle are:

  • A woman who escaped religious persecution in Russia as an infant
  • A man who watched his daughter struggle through mental illness and addiction
  • A widow who nursed her husband through a slow death from cancer, and
  • Two doctors who have spent their careers working at clinics for indigent patients.

She writes it is from these lives where biblical interpretation is to take place, how the words of the bible are meaningful in the questions and challenges of the day (Florer-Bixler).

When I heard Mr. Session’s comment I was first drawn to Leviticus 19, which is a reading from a recent Morning Prayer. It is part of the Holiness Code, a guide for life for Israel. A sort of extended Ten Commandments. Its instructions include

 9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: (Leviticus 19:9-10).

which we rarely hear. My favorite ignored verse is:

you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. (Leviticus 19:19).

 it goes against modern farming practices and makes it difficult to get dressed; most everything we wear is some sort of blended fabric. However, the relevant verse is

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34).

 

And here, we come back to my falling off the boat, and Jesus sailing with his disciples across to “the other side.” This is the first jolt to the disciples.

It is Jesus first venture into Galilee, a land of the gentiles, a hostile land of an undeserving people with no rights to the Messianic promises (Francois III).

We are comfortable thinking about divine justice. We’d just as soon avoid Jesus’ intrusive call to the other side, where stigmatized, marginalized, and demonized people live. [To] shores … populated by others (Francois III). The truth is that we learn to see and know God/Jesus/Spirit in the presence of the other, the people not like us, the alien.

The challenge in today’s reading is our response to the Trump Administration, whether we support its policies and actions, or detest them. All of us are called to sail to the other side with open hearts (2 Cor 6:13). Psalm 9 verse 16 reads The Lord is known by his acts of justice; the question is, are we?

The last remembrance for today is Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is only 25 verses. In it Paul tells Philemon he is returning his runaway slave Onesimus. Paul describes his relationship with Philemon; how he considered commanding Philemon to let Onesimus stay, but instead bases his appeal on Paul’s and Philemon’s mutual love. Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus back,

no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 1:16).

Paul’s argument goes to the farthest shore. In this morning’s reading from 2 Corinthians, he argues that the true basis for all our relationships includes everyone’s relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit in whose image all of us, Christian or Gentile, resident or alien are made. Drawing on Psalm 69 (vs 13) Paul quotes God

At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation, I have helped you (2 Corinthians 6:2).

 and goes on to say now is acceptable time, now is a time of salvation.

Now is an acceptable time to be the servants of God we are called to be. It is not simply about not tearing families apart; it is about how everyone treats everyone else. It is about who we elect as our representatives in God’s designated governance, which is to promote the presence of the kingdom not US values or America first, but divine values, and God’s is always first.

The vessels of our lives seem to be in a great storm and all sorts of waves are beating into that in which we place our lives. It is easy to perceive that Jesus is asleep, that God/Jesus/Spirit is indifferent to the threat that we are perishing. The calling ~ is to have faith to trust. The same Jesus who rebukes the wind and calms the sea, will still the storms of your lives and bring peace. The calling is to extend that divine calm and peace to those who live on or journeyed from other shores, in our prayers, in our words, in our actions, and in our governance.


References

Florer-Bixler, Melissa. “How Jeff Sessions reads Romans 13 and how my.” 15 6 2018. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org/blog-post/guest-post/how-jeff-sessions-reads-romans-13-and-how-my-mennonite-sunday-school-classdoes>.

Francois III, Willie Dwayne. “June 24, Ordinary 12B (Mark 4:35-41).” 6 6 2018. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org/article/living-word/june-24-ordinary-12b-mark-435-41>.

Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

 

 

 

Onesimus Labor

A sermon for Proper 18: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Tomorrow is Labor Day which is set aside to honor those who literally build America. Among the builders, I include teachers, secretaries, house and grounds keepers, maintenance worker, and all those folks who get stuff done. They are not always who we think they are. Way back I remember Richard Dreyfuss in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Duddy was working as a waiter at a summer resort trying to make contact with important people. He wasn’t getting his orders out like he wanted to. He spoke to the maître d’, nothing changed. He spoke to the executive chef, nothing changed. He spoke to the resort manager, nothing changed. One day he noticed the cook had a bottle on a shelf just above the stove, which he drank from frequently. The day Duddy walked by and left a new bottle on the counter in front of the cook, and his orders came quickly. It is not always the people at the top who get things done.

The last 40 years have been a challenge for American labor, trade, and working folks; many are not doing so well. Income has been flat at best; many people have experienced a real decline in spending ability. The children of Baby Boomers and GenXers are the first to do less well than parents. To say why is difficult. There are complex economics factors. There are interweaving social issues that confuse explanations. International relationships and trade deals are problematic. Election season rhetoric doesn’t make things any clearer. All these and more are parts of a vague understanding, or non-understanding, of the state of American Labor.

As I see it, one of the biggest factors is the results of commoditization of everything; food is a commodity, heath care is a commodity, education is a commodity, and now labor is a commodity. Employers relationships with the people who work for them are more and more determined by what profit they generate. The commoditization of everything is a great loss to our society. It a major change from how Jesus, Paul and the Prophets understood faith.

Today we segregate our faith from the rest of our world. There is Church and our relationship with God. People talk about how “I love Jesus” or how “Jesus in my heart” and so forth. Then over there somewhere is the relationship with the rest of the world; customers, suppliers, employees, are all commodities we use to bring profit to us and the cost to them irrelevant. This is what Jesus is speaking to the crowd about.

These and related verses are often referred to as defining the cost of discipleship, and they are hard to hear. Who wants to sell everything you have to be a Christian? Who wants to ‘hate’ their parents, or siblings, or best friend? A language point; the word translated ‘hate’ means something more like “make a lesser priority” so you can make God’s purpose the greatest priority (Ellingsen) (Hoezee, Luke). If ‘hate’ means something slightly different, perhaps the rest of Jesus’ teaching is a little different.

Jesus is prodding the people to consider if their relationships are based on their relationship with God and Jesus or based on something else. He is clear that change needs to be made, and these changes will require sacrifices (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). However, not all sacrifices are the same; some lead to death, and some lead to life (Lose). Gary Gunderson in Leading Causes of Life notes that we are good at seeing threats and responding to eliminate them, but we are not so good at seeing the causes of life and supporting them (Gunderson and Page). Jesus calls us to make sacrifices that lead to life. And yes, even these sacrifices are difficult (Lose). And the ethical decisions that emerge from these sacrifices, as full of grace as they may be, are not cheap (Epperly). To carry the cross is to carry the burdens of a life that is committed to bringing the Kingdom right here right now (Lewis). To carry the cross is making choices that require some wisdom, and being careful to be sure we don’t confuse family’ values with Kingdom values (Hoezee, Luke) (Jacobsen). Such wisdom requires that we realize, as Jeremiah is telling Israel, the choices are ours; the enemy doesn’t control this, God doesn’t control this, these are our decisions.

The treatment of trades, labor, working folk, customers, suppliers, and anyone else is what Paul is addressing in Philemon. Even though Onesimus may not have been a runaway slave, we must still acknowledge Philemon was, and at times still is, misused to justify slavery. After our confession and apologies, then we heed Paul’s words (Barreto). We must confront the same question Paul confronts Philemon with; how are we treating people? Do we treat everyone as a brother or sister in Christ? After deep reflection and honesty, we must deal with whatever we discover separates us from others. Carrying the Cross is a commitment to the radical reorientation of the community’s understanding of the Onesimuses of the world; employees, customers, suppliers, neighbors near and far, whoever we may commoditize as individuals or as a nation. These people are no longer merely a cog in the machine of “it’s just business”; they are now a beloved kin (Barreto). This means all of us in this room, in the parish, our community, our county, state, country, and in the world; who are so good at finding ways to put down, oppress, take advantage of, or commoditize Onesimuses to our advantage irrespective of the cost to them, are called to undermine whatever demeaning ways Onesimuses are viewed and treated as less than our friend in Christ (Hoezee, Philemon). Everyone struggles to build a Jesus like relationships and to receive everyone as a beloved relative. In Jeremiah’s words, by the work of our own hands we are all miss-shaped pots.

It is a foreboding thought. However, Jeremiah’s message is clear, Israel’s life is not fixed, Philemon’s and Onesimus’ lives are not fixed, our lives are not fixed. Our lives are like pots of unfired clay (Portier-Young). Nothing has been predetermined. When Israel turned from good to evil, disaster and destruction came. When Israel turned from evil too good, disaster and destruction are averted. When we turn from evil to righteous behavior disaster, and destruction will fade away (Portier-Young). Turning from evil to righteousness includes changing our relationships with the Onesimuses of the word.

There are competing forces that shape us as individuals and communities. We are formed through righteous beliefs and virtuous actions. We are malformed by greed, abuse, and raw ambition. We are persuaded by suggestion and temptations. Yet we are resilient, we do remarkable good, and are open to deep conversion (Portier-Young). Jeremiah tells Israel, the choice is theirs, walk in God’s ways disaster is averted; continue to reject her moral responsibilities and disaster is assured (Bratt).

Even though Jeremiah is speaking to individuals, his message is to the nation (Bowron). His message is also for us, as individuals and as the communities we are a part of. Therefore, we have a two-prong challenge seeing and changing our own behavior, and seeing and insisting the leaders of our governments, businesses, churches, whatever, change our communities’ and organizations’ ethics and behavior. And as much as I have fussed about it, this is the season to make that voice known, at the ballot box. So in the next 8 weeks or less, with conscious, prayerful discernment, glean God’s calling and then vote your conscious (Episcopal News Service).

It is easy to see doom and gloom on the horizon; there are enough talking heads spouting one form or another of the end of times. But, as I said, Jeremiah is clear, when we change our behavior the disaster we face will fade away. We should also remember that we are not alone. The 23rd Psalm walks us through the valley of the shadow of death, walks us through any darkness that threatens us, assuring us that God is always with us. Even as our strength wanes, we can trust in God’s strength … as we look forward to the resurrection and the life of the world to come (The Episcopal Church 357).


References

Barreto, Eric. Commentary on Philemon 1:121. 4 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.
Bowron, Josh. “What is God Calling You to Love? Proper 18 (C).” 4 9 2016. Sermons that Work.
Bratt, Doug. Proper 18C Jeremiah. 4 9 2016.
Ellingsen, Mark. Proper 18 | Ordinary Time 23 | Pentecost 16, Cycle C (2016). 4 9 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – September 4, 2016 –. 4 9 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.
Gunderson, Gary and Larry Page. Leading Causes of Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Hoezee, Scott. Proper 18 C Philemon 1:1-1:21. 4 9 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18c/>.
—. Proper 18C Luke. 4 9 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.
Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Luke 14:2533. 4 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 4 9 2016.
Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher Carrying The Cross. 4 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.
Lose, David. Pentecost 16 C: Life-giving Sacrifice. 30 8 2016.
Portier-Young, Anathea. Commentary on Jeremiah 18:111. 4 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.
The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.